Reverberations are still being felt from Sandy Weill's comments last week about breaking up the big banks. (See: Sandy Weill, Welcome to 'Team Break Up the Big Banks': Neil Barofsky)
This weekend was chock-full of op-eds and stories about Weill's change of heart and the wisdom of his recommendations -- or lack thereof.
"The fact Sandy Weill is coming forward is significant," says Laurence Kotlikoff, professor of economics at Boston University. "But he's got the wrong view of what's wrong with the banks."
The problem is not the size of the banks but their "opacity and leverage," Koltikoff says. "Secret-keeping small banks that are highly leveraged is not going to be a whole lot different. The way to fix it is to break up the banks by not breaking up the banks."
How's that now?
As detailed in his 2012 book, Jimmy Stewart Is Dead, Koltikoff advocates what he calls limited purpose banking, wherein banks would focus solely on being financial intermediaries, rather than trading or other non-core activities.
"Limited Purpose Banking transforms all of the financial corporations...whether they are called commercial banks, investment banks, hedge funds, insurance companies, private equity funds, venture capital funds, brokerages, credit unions, or something else, into pass-through mutual fund companies," he writes in a recent op-ed at Forbes.
As we discuss in the accompanying video, Koltikoff's idea is to use the mutual fund holding company structure as the model for the banking industry. This may seem strange but mutual funds already conduct 30% of financial intermediation in the U.S., he says. More importantly, they didn't require bailouts when the crisis hit in 2008.
Mutual fund assets can lose value but the entity itself can't fail because it's not leveraged, he explains. "The marketplace is a public good and we can't let banks continue to gamble with it. Their job is not to gamble but to intermediate. That's why we want to limit them to their purpose."
It sounds simple and logical...which is why it'll probably never happen, at least not given the currently cozy relationships between the biggest banks, regulators and elected officials.
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